My rainforest portrait studio

Leaf katydid (Typophyllum sp.) from Suriname [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, two speedlights Canon 580EX + ambient light; f11, 1/4 s, ISO 250]
Katydids of the tribe Pterochrozini are some of the best leaf mimics that you can find in the Neotropical rainforest. Or rather the best mimics that you cannot find, as their resemblance to leaves, both green and shriveled, is so exquisite that in my 18 years of working in the Neotropics I have never found one during the day. I only find them at night, when their movement betrays their animal nature, or when I am able to detect their ultrasonic calls with a high frequency microphone.

Upon finding one I usually take a photo, but I never liked those pictures, illuminated only with a flash, the background pitch black. I much prefer images that show the true colors of the background of the animal, and I like to have full control over the quality of light, its direction and intensity. Since I nearly always catch the katydids (they are my professional speciality, and I need the specimens for my work), this gives me an opportunity to photograph them again the following day, using the full photographic arsenal and methods at my disposal.

Leaf katydid (Typophyllum sp.) from Suriname [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, two speedlights Canon 580EX + ambient light; f6.3, 1/40 s, ISO 200]
One of the first things I do when setting up a camp in the rainforest is to build a small workbench. On it I process the specimens, enter field data into my computer, and I use it as a photographic studio. Every species I collect is photographed for documentation, and the photos are entered into a database. These photos are not particularly pretty: they are mostly close-ups of diagnostic characters of the animals, and  composition or any other esthetic considerations are completely irrelevant.

But once I am done with the work, the fun begins. Because I usually keep my insects alive for a few days in order to get recordings of their songs, I can then experiment with all variables of their portraiture, such as the depth of field, backlighting, magnification etc. For this type of photography I nearly always use long lenses, which both give me a great working distance, and help diffuse the background and bring out the main subject of the photograph.

Here is a typical setup I use for my rainforest portraiture. I built this little field studio while working in southern Suriname in 2010, and the two photos of Typophyllum katydids shown here were taken in it. The bench itself was made from leftover pieces of wood that was used to construct our research camp.

My field studio in Suriname

A. Canon 1Ds Mk II – this is my main full frame workhorse; I like to use full frame cameras when shooting with really long portrait lenses (180mm); a camera with a cropped sensor  would force me to  move too far back from the table, and it would also make it more difficult to achieve a shallow depth of field.

B. Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro – a wonderful macro lens; it is very sharp, but its bokeh could be better (bright points in the background tend to appear as octagons.)

C. Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter – it allows me to trigger multiple external flashes wirelessly.

D. Tripod GT2531EX 6X Carbon Fiber Explorer – in order to get natural-looking, light background, the exposure time must be relatively long, often as much as several seconds. This means that the camera must be firmly immobilized, and hand-holding it is not an option. I love this tripod – it is light but sturdy, and it allows me to spread the legs flat on the ground, giving me a very low vantage point.

E. Canon Remote Controller TC-80N3 – The use of a remote controller allows me to eliminate vibrations caused by manually pressing the shutter.

F. Canon 580EX speedlight – a powerful, pretty water-resistant flash (but not waterproof!)

G. Diffusers – this cheap piece of plastic (a $1 plastic folder I bought at Staples) is one the most important parts of my equipment. Without it the light of the flash is far too concentrated, resulting in harsh, unpleasant burnouts on any highly reflective elements of the photo.

H. GorillaPod – a great little tripod; very flexible, you can wrap it around a branch, and some models are sturdy enough to support a large SLR with a heavy lens.

I. “Helping hands” – another indispensable piece of gear for anybody interested in macrophotography; it allows you to position a leaf or a branch, or support a piece of paper if you want to have white background for your photo. Get it for a few bucks at RadioShack.

J. Reflector – I always carry one; it allows me to put nice, reflected light on the subject, especially if I am using only ambient light and no flash.

K. Wimberly Plamp – a handy flexible arm to hold the reflector or a branch.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard Radke says:

    I use old fashioned wooden cloths pins painted black. Cheap, and 1001 uses.

  2. Hey Piotr, nice blog entry. You reminded me to put more “how-to” stuff on my blog, although I did post a piece recently on natural light photography of butterflies. Saludos, your partner in crime, Bruce

  3. Sean McCann says:

    I just found some perfect folders of my own, and they make a great difference in my flash diffusion! Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this glimpse into your field techniques. It did make me grin to see your high-tech equipment in use with a cobbled together table and simple white folders…and such excellent results!

  5. Oh, wow. I have got to start incorporating some of these elements! Thanks for sharing your setup. Very illuminating (in both senses)!

  6. Fascinating to see the way you work in the field Piotr – I think it is inspiring when people see how those in the know use their ingenuity to get results and that it is not a question of throwing money at the problem (camera equipment aside!). Brilliant!

  7. These “ways of working” posts are awesome, Piotr.

    I see some red ribbon tied around the remote controller and some other easily lost stuff. I assume that’s both to make it easier to locate and retrieve from your bag and to find it if you drop it in the field. After briefly losing my remote in the field, I wrapped orange reflective tape around the cord.

    I switched from using those “helping hands” to a PanaVise product (model 201). The former was often falling apart and the clips are destructive. The PanaVise is sturdier, easier to manipulate, can hold larger objects, and is kinder to soft materials (e.g. a leaf). It’s somewhat bigger though, but I don’t carry mine into the field.

    1. Yes, the flagging tape is to help me avoid losing small pieces of equipment in the field.

      You are right that the metal clips of the “helping hands” can be destructive to soft branches etc. Therefore I always put a thick rubber band between their “jaws”, which both softens and increases the surface area of the grip.

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